Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Has "Christendom" Served its Purpose?

A lot of people I run into seem to be angsting these days about the imminent failure of what used to be called “Christendom.”  On the one hand, the repaganization of Western Civilization seems to be progressing steadily.  (On CSI: Miami the other day, some character told another that “That’s between you and your own personal god.”  I found that to be a rather telling statement.  It can only be between “you and your own personal god” if your own personal god really exists!  Otherwise it’s the same as saying “it’s between you and your imaginary friend Skippy.”  The concept of “my personal god” lies at the heart of classical paganism, not at the heart of “religious tolerance.”)

Anyway, you have homegrown paganism on the one hand and you have the pressure of militant Islam on the other, taking down a former Christendom that, in the case of Europe, is no longer even capable of rustling up either the virility or the maternal instinct to replace itself.  

Is Christendom disappearing?  Well, that may depend on what we mean.  Are the Dark Forces of Satan about to throw us all to the lions?  That particular fear would seem to be a bit paranoid at the moment.  Atheist bumper stickers and The DaVinci Code do not a persecution make.  In terms of having a Christian-based civilization that is an effective presence in the world, however, I’d have to say yes – Christendom has pretty much vanished before our eyes.  We can argue about that until the cows come home, but I think most readers here would buy the claim.  The fact itself is not what I find interesting.  We can also ask whether the process is irreversible. (My response: theoretically, no; practically, probably yes.)  But that’s not what interests me either.

The question I do find interesting is, why is Christendom disappearing?  Not “why” in the political or sociological – or even theological – sense, but “why” in the teleological sense.  We claim to believe in the God of Providence, the one who works through history to establish His Kingdom and Whose purposes cannot be thwarted.  If we actually mean what we say, then Christendom can’t be disappearing because God’s suddenly losing the war with Satan – its failure must have been calculated into the grand scheme of things just as much as Adam munching the apple and Jerusalem falling to Nebuchadnezzar the Great.  

If Christian Western civilization really is going the way of the dodo bird, then it must have served out its purpose, at least for the present time.  Which then leads to the question, why did it come into existence in the first place?  There may be an analogy with the history of Israel, the nation state.  Israel was the place where monotheistic faith could be developed and preserved until the coming of the Messiah.  Once Jesus had come and the gospel was being preached throughout the Empire, Israel (as a national culture) didn’t last very long.  The Second Temple was destroyed in the Jewish War in A.D. 70, and the city of Jerusalem was plowed with oxen after the Bar Kochba revolt in A.D. 136.  

“Christendom” really came into existence with the Emperor (St.) Constantine.  Through the Romans, Europe was Christianized and remained a sanctuary for believers during the Muslim conquests of the seventh through the seventeenth centuries.  It was through the rise of imperial Europe that the church was able to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  There are still a few unreached people groups in the world, but the likelihood is that within a few years there will be no races, tribes, or nations where the gospel hasn’t been heard.  I suspect we’ve served our purpose.  The rest of the world can take it from here, and it’s time for us to pay our bill.

Israel presumed that their chosen status would protect them from destruction no matter what they did.  Haven’t we pretty much presumed the same thing?  Spreading the gospel was certainly a Very Good Thing, but a lot of really bad stuff went along with it.  I don’t think there’s any shortage of unrepented sin in the Western world; there sure isn’t in my house.  

Jesus promised to be with us to the end of the age – pretty much the same thing that’s been promised to the Jews.  The promise made to the Jews was made to those who chose to follow Yahweh, not to the nation-state.  The promise of Christ wasn’t made to us as a “Christian culture;” it was made to us as a church.  It’s the remnant against whom the gates of hell will not prevail – sometimes that remnant is 95% of the population, and sometimes its 1%.  We’ve gotten used to the idea that we’re the majority; like the Jews, we may have to get used to minority status.  The Promise never changes, but the comfort level that goes with establishment status may be in for some pretty rude revisions.

That was a lot more long winded than I intended when I started out, but hey – I am a professor, at least part-time. Long-winded is my business.  Wind me up and I automatically go on for at least an hour, and I don’t have a reset button.